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date: 21 January 2020


  • Julius Kaplan


European cultural movement that was at its peak in the last two decades of the 19th century, profoundly affecting the visual arts and inextricably bound up with music and literature.

Symbolism was first identified as a literary movement by Jean Moréas (1856–1910) in the Symbolist manifesto (‘Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, 18 Sept 1886). Symbolism in the visual arts was further defined by Albert Aurier as the ‘painting of ideas’ (‘Les Symbolistes’, Rev. Enc., 1 April 1892). Its complex aesthetic was a mix of Platonic-inspired philosophy, mystical and occult doctrines, psychology, linguistics, science, political theory and such aesthetic issues as the relationship between abstraction and representation. While many Symbolists reacted against the materialism of 19th-century science and its implications (positivist philosophy, social Darwinism, artistic Realism), others sought to reconcile modern science with spiritual traditions. Ideas based on the rise of scientific psychology with its emphasis on individual freedom and the great interest in the occult, together with such practices as hypnosis, opened up a realm of psychic experience, which promised access to important realms of knowledge. Symbolism stressed feeling and evocation over definition and fact and emphasized the power of suggestion. ...

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